on music and beauty

Tag: Colombia

From culture to nature and back

‘From culture to nature and back: a personal journey through the soundscapes of Colombia’ is an online essay where I reflect on my experience of the natural sounds, music and rituals of remote places and communities in Colombia. The article, with its accompanying recordings, has been published in Journal of Sonic Studies 19, an issue entirely devoted to the sounds of Latin America.

In the essay I celebrate the astonishing richness and diversity of Colombia’s natural and human soundscapes, and reconstruct the process through which they have influenced my own creative work as a composer. Reflecting on a long personal and intellectual journey of discovery that plays out on many levels – musical, anthropological, aesthetic – helps bring to the fore important questions on music composition as the locus of cultural appropriation and reinterpretation.

How far can the belief system of a distant culture travel before it loses its meaning? From a postcolonial perspective, can a European composer justify the use and repurposing of ideas, sounds and songs from marginalised indigenous communities? In trying to give an answer to these questions I keep unravelling layer upon layer of complexity, in a fascinating game of mirrors where my own identity as a “Western” composer starts crumbling away.

Aluna in depth

Aluna is a 30′ work for viola, ensemble and live electronics written for renowned viola virtuoso Rivka Golani. In Aluna instrumentation, form, harmonic structure, and the use of technology all derive from a single, powerful model: the rich and complex creation myth of the Kogi, an indigenous community living on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia.

The starting idea for Aluna was a ritual sequence where a female figure would lead a group of followers through a transformative process. From a musical perspective the solo viola would represent the leading female figure, the ensemble her people, and the electronics the transformative tools. Conceptually the music of the solo viola generates all the musical material of the piece, while the electronics setup allows the soloist to transform her own sound and the sound of the ensemble through her musical gestures.

Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff has been the first anthropologist to disentangle the complexities of the Kogi mythology and to notice the uniqueness of their culture in the wider perspective of South American ethnology. The Kogi creation myth is based on a sequence of nine worlds, representing both a chronological series of events and the permanent structure of their universe. A graphical representation of the latter would consist of two conical shapes joined at the base, with the smaller worlds at the top and the bottom, and at the centre the largest, the fifth world, our world. Accordingly Aluna is composed of nine sections of related lengths. An introduction (“Sea”) and a conclusion (“Blood”) frame the nine “Worlds”. Each of the “worlds” links to the following one through a short “weaving” section.

The importance of weaving in the Kogi culture cannot be overemphasised. Every aspect of their physical and spiritual life is dominated by the act of weaving, and the creation myth as a whole can be visualised as a giant spinning fuse around an imaginary axis passing through the highest peak of the Sierra Nevada.

The music of Aluna is derived entirely from an interwoven fabric of nine harmonic fields, built from nine intervals of a perfect fifth. This harmonic structure expands and contracts according to the form of the piece, but maintains its ritual, static character throughout.

For Aluna I developed an interface written with MaxMSP. It performs a realtime spectral analysis and resynthesis of the viola sound, and spatialise the resulting FFT bins individually. The trajectories reflect the weaving paradigm, both in space and frequency. The generative nature of the viola is reflected in how spectral and amplitude data from the instrument are used to control and transform the sound of the orchestra through a bank of dynamic resonant filters, spectral delays and a convolution engine.

Time in Colombia

In Colombia time has a different meaning, a different structure. This has been noted already by writers and travellers, but for a composer it is particularly exciting, since it opens up a whole new perspective on time perception and manipulation.

Colombians do not have a linear perception of time – one event after the other – as we usually have in Europe. Time in Colombia is more like a sort of fabric, where each interweaving thread represents a single event. Instead of building time as a series of events following each other, Colombians maintain a parallel perception where many events are kept together. Delay and multithreading are the key concepts here; events are kept in a sort of memory buffer and dealt with according to external requirements, all at the same time. Instead of completing one event and going on to the next, Colombians advance by small or big leaps through many events at the same time.

This attitude towards time is puzzling at first, but once you get used to it, it is utterly fascinating. A group of friends might decide to visit the family of one of them living in a finca, a house in the country. The plan is to leave on Tuesday afternoon. They duly meet on Tuesday to leave, but they eventually leave only on Friday morning. A number of parallel events have been unfolding, and the trip to the finca has been delayed by three days, but for all of them it is only ‘a bit’ later. They, or their expecting host, have no concept of a missed appointment nor they feel the need to reschedule the trip. Time, simply, has stretched and the ‘visit to the finca‘ event with it, like some sort of elastic entity.

The continuous shifting and rearranging of events in time and the ability to deal with it, the ability to maintain a parallel perception of many crisscrossing events – is, I believe, one of the main reasons for the amazing creativity, emotional intelligence and adaptation skills of the Colombian people, especially those living in rural areas.

It is easy to see a musical parallel: instead of one or more fixed timelines governing a sequence of musical events or objects, each event has its own timeline, expanding and contracting according to the behaviour of other concurrent timelines.

Colombian wind band music

Yesterday night I went to a concert in the main church of Salamina, amidst the mountains in the coffee-growing region of Caldas in central Colombia. It was a banda sinfónica juvenil, bringing together the best players from all the local wind bands (there are 44 of them from every village in the region). The quality of the playing was amazing. 80 kids aged 14 to 18 played a mixed repertoire of classical music arrangements and Colombian folk music, with unerring precision, great intonation and an infectious sense of rhythm.

The most interesting pieces in the programme were by Victoriano Valencia, considered the best Colombian composer of music for banda sinfónica. Victoriano’s arrangements thread a fine line between traditional roots and innovation – especially formal and harmonic – without falling in the easy trap of emulating the jazz-derived idiom and sounds of North American big bands. I found his music highly original and very well scored.



High up on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia, under the snowy peaks and overlooking the Caribbean Sea, live the Kogi Indians. Contrary to the fate of many indigenous people in South America, the Kogi have managed to maintain their cultural identity and traditional way of life. Their geographical isolation has certainly helped, but the main reason is the unusually articulated, profound and interconnected set of beliefs and rituals that govern their life. Mythic thought and everyday life are so intertwined that many anthropologists have recognised the exceptionality of the Kogi among other Indian tribes of Central and Southern America.

The Kogi universe is based on a creation myth centred on the figure of the Great Mother. Originally she was aluna, pure thought. This word has multiple meanings in the Kogi language: memory, spirit, imagination. This mythological narrative has been the main source of inspiration for Aluna. The role of the Great Mother, and how she spins the world into existence from the dark primeval waters, has determined the form of the piece and the interaction between the soloist and the ensemble. The music of the ensemble is always derived from the solo viola part. Technology is used in the piece to project the viola sound in space and to allow the soloist to control and transform the sounds of the ensemble in real time.

When dealing with different cultures, I am always very interested in a kind of reverse ethnology, whereby we use concepts and knowledge from “primitive” people to try and shed light on our own culture. Aluna sets out to recreate a musical equivalent of the incredibly rich and profound creation myth of the Kogi. No musical tourism and no exotic flavours then, rather the attempt to transcend cultural differences by marrying Western compositional techniques with a world view from a remote culture.

Written in 2005 for Rivka Golani, the renowned virtuoso viola player, Aluna is dedicated to the memory of my mother. Aluna was first performed on 24 June 2005 with Rivka Golani, solo viola, and the Thallein Ensemble conducted by Lionel Friend in the Recital Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire.

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Flute (doubling Piccolo)
Clarinet in Bb (doubling Bass Clarinet in Bb)
Horn in F
Trumpet in Bb
Percussion (Marimba, Glockenspiel)
Live Electronics (one performer)
2 Violins
Double Bass


Kamu-purrui (1992) is written for alto flute with open holes. The title refers to a specific type of South American flutes by the Cuna indians (Panama and Colombia) that allow the performer to produce two sounds at the same time. This is achieved in the piece by the simultaneous emission of the performer’s voice and the instrumental sound.

Kamu-purrui is dedicated to Italian flautist and conductor Carlo Ipata, whose knowledge and enthusiasm have proved invaluable in the realisation of this work.

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